New Delhi: The two informal summits between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping didn’t help in putting an end to the “strategic mistrust” between New Delhi and Beijing, according to Nirupama Menon Rao, India’s former foreign secretary.
In an exclusive interview to ThePrint, discussing her new book, The Fractured Himalaya: India Tibet China 1949-1962, Rao said the Modi government cannot be faulted for having taken a different approach in dealing with the Xi administration, but the real outcome of the two informal summits between 2018 and 2019 may never be known.
“Both sides had agreed that they should meet at the political level informally to look at the whole terrain of the relationship. So I wouldn’t fault that initiative at all from either side,” said Rao, who also served as India’s ambassador to China and to the US.
PM Modi and President Xi held two informal summits in 2018 and in 2019 in China and India respectively. In these summits, both sides discussed all issues — from the boundary question to trade and the abrogation of Article 370 — in an informal manner.
“What transpired during those informal summits, we really don’t know. Did they consolidate the areas of agreement or did they expose the areas of difference? Did they contribute to the building of strategic trust between the two countries or did they really reveal the extent of strategic mistrust between the countries? We really don’t know,” Rao said. “Because we were not privy to those discussions and we will not be perhaps for the next many decades.”
Even as the outcome of these summits remained unknown, adverse Chinese activity has continued along the Line of Actual Control, Rao highlighted. “From about 2013 onwards, the rise in Chinese activities and transgression along the LAC, particularly in Ladakh, had increased,” she said.
Along with this, the simultaneous development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor also contributed to strategic mistrust between New Delhi and Beijing, Rao said. Moreover, the Chinese put hurdles in the listing of Masood Azhar as a terrorist and also made it difficult for India to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Rao also noted that the Chinese reaction to the entire issue of the scrapping of Article 370 by India in 2019 contributed to sending the two countries apart.
“Did the informal summits address all of these… Perhaps the informal summits were not completely able to put a stop to that rise in strategic mistrust between the two countries. So that unfortunately is the sobering conclusion that we have to draw,” the veteran diplomat said.
While Rao added that dialogue between the two countries should continue and differences be addressed, she stressed that situations like the Galwan incident cannot be allowed to happen again as the “real risk” India faces today is “eruption of conflict”.
‘Surgical decoupling with China not easy’
According to Rao, also a former spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, the Galwan Valley incident adversely impacted the bilateral ties, but it would not be easy for New Delhi to go for a “surgical decoupling” with Beijing.
On 15 June 2020, India lost 20 soldiers in the eastern Ladakh sector of the LAC in a violent clash with Chinese troops. This was the first incident since 1975 between the countries in which blood was shed.
But despite the blow to ties, China continues to be India’s largest trading partner in terms of merchandise exports, Rao highlighted.
“We are now talking of decoupling with China. As far as trade is concerned, never mind… it continues to be our largest trading partner in terms of goods and that kind of decoupling cannot happen overnight,” she said.
There exist certain “practical difficulties”, and hence, a “surgical decoupling” of sorts cannot take place easily, but business cannot continue as usual with China unless the border standoff is resolved, she said.
Rao maintained that with the Galwan incident, the understanding between India and China on maintaining peace and tranquility in the border areas has “broken down”.
“Generations of Chinese negotiators, just as generations of Indian negotiators, have been brought up on the diet in the history of this (border) dispute. Each side has mutually recriminatory sort of approaches to the problem,” she said, adding that the border agreements proved to be useful since 1993 and even before.
“Border protocols worked quite well from 1993 onwards, and even before that, for 45 years until June 2020, we had no bloodshed along the LAC. That is what has broken down today,” she said.
But such differences shouldn’t be allowed to aggravate further, the ex-diplomat said.
“These differences around the LAC, if they are allowed to be aggravated further, they are bound to result in further confrontation. I think we should avoid that. We have seen today how Galwan has put the relationship back by a couple of years at least,” Rao said.
India dealing with a more assertive China now
According to Rao, the primary reason why India and China could not settle their border dispute, unlike China and Russia, is because the territorial claims between New Delhi and Beijing are significant.
“The extent of territorial claims that both sides have in the India-China border dispute is very, very big… How we are going to sort this problem out?” she said.
“I still don’t see what the future holds in that connection because on the Chinese side particularly there is such a muscularity and assertiveness and expansionist urge… You see it in the maritime environment of the Indo-Pacific and you see along the land border with India today,” she underlined.
India today is dealing with a far more assertive China and the range of Chinese influence too is far greater than what it was in the 1950s or early 1960s, she said, adding that Beijing should understand that the Indo-Pacific strategic construct is here to stay.
“The Chinese need to understand that there are codes of conduct to be followed,” she said.
‘Nehru was not a Bismarck, not a Kissinger’
Referring to the India-Tibet-China issue as a “three-body problem”, as mentioned in her book, Rao said “no simplistic deductions” can be made about the role played by former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
“We cannot take a narrow or circumscribed view of Nehru,” she said. “No doubt Nehru is a central character in my narrative (in the book). He is kind of a tragic hero, a very flawed hero with all his faults, but somehow I believe his dedication to the national cause could not be suspected or questioned.”
Explaining the reasons behind why Nehru believed it will be a positive foreign policy move to strategically embrace China, Rao said he operated in a period when India was just coming out of centuries of colonial rule.
“Although this was a period marked by weaknesses in policy oversight and in policy making, we have to understand the circumstances in which Nehru made those decisions,” she said.
“The nation was a very young one, we were still consolidating that nationhood … There were challenges of development, there were challenges of poverty alleviation, there was the challenge of rebuilding after the ravages of colonial domination for almost three centuries,” she said.
“It is true that Nehru was very idealistic about China. He envisioned a partnership of civilisation, (but) he was not a (German diplomat Otto von) Bismarck, he was not a (US diplomat Henry) Kissinger. He saw China as an emergent nation and equal to India,” Rao elaborated.
“Although Nehru was not a strategist, he also felt that we should not let China take the upper hand and basic challenge in Asia was the challenge between India and China,” she added.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)